Hurricane Irma Approaches Florida

 I'm sure everyone reading this post is well aware that Florida is being threatened by a massive and powerful hurricane that has already caused numerous deaths and incredible destruction over the past few days.

I'm typing this on Thursday afternoon (September 7th) and Hurricane Irma remains a Category 5 system capable of causing additional catastrophic damage.  Winds are still in excess of 180 miles per hour and tropical storm force winds extend at least 150 miles from the center of the storm.

If you are reading this in Florida, you know that water, D batteries, bread and other supplies are very hard to find and lines at many gas stations are growing by the minute.  Courts and other state and county offices (if they have not already closed) will be closed tomorrow.  Sporting events have been rescheduled or canceled, schools are closing, and airports are chaotic (and many will be closing within the next twenty four to forty eight hours).

I've posted several times in the past about the importance of following mandatory evacuation orders and not using your community's clubhouse or other common area facility as a shelter to "ride out" the storm.  I cannot overly stress the importance to evacuating when you are ordered to do so and, unless your clubhouse/common area facility is a Red Cross certified hurricane shelter, you should not use it as such.  If you have pets, you should have long ago determined what shelters are "pet friendly" and should have taken all steps needed to reserve a space at that shelter.

If you are remaining in Florida, or in any other area threatened by this dangerous hurricane, please check out Bryan Norcross' Facebook page for a very good list to help you deal with the days ahead.  

As always, the National Hurricane Center's site can provide you with much needed information about the storm.

Our office will be closed tomorrow (September 8) and hopefully we will be back up and running on Monday, September 11.

I pray that all of you and your communities are spared the worst of Hurricane Irma.

All Eyes on Erika

 Most Floridians know that our real "hurricane season" begins around the time that thoughts turn to football and our students returning to school.   This year is no different as we have been following the progress of Tropical Storm Erika.

Earlier today, Florida's governor declared a state of emergency.  While the path and intensity of Erika remains very uncertain, this is a very good opportunity for a few reminders:

  • Florida statutes grant certain emergency powers to the board of directors of condominium, cooperative, and mandatory homeowners associations in response to damage caused by an event for which a state of emergency is declared.  Managers and board members should review both the appropriate statute and the association's governing documents for guidance in the event that any emergency actions need to be taken.
  • Residents with pets should have already determined what shelters in their area will accept pets as many shelters will not do so.
  • Finally, as I have written before, if and when a mandatory evacuation order is entered for your locale, residents and their guests should leave the community.   Unless the community's clubhouse is a certified hurricane shelter, no one should be using the clubhouse to "ride out" the storm.

The National Hurricane Center is currently posting full updates on Erika every six hours and interim updates approximately three hours after a full update.  If and when Erika approaches Florida's coastline, these updates will probably occur more frequently.

Now is the time to make preparations and to be alert and aware.   Stay safe!

Cooperative and HOA Boards Will Soon Have Emergency Powers

Florida's Governor has signed into law Senate Bill 807 which contains very important changes to the laws governing resident owned communities. I'll discuss many of those in future entries to this blog but since we're now into hurricane season, I thought I'd first highlight the creation of Florida Statute Sections 719.128 and 720.316, both of which are entitled "Association emergency powers".

These new sections allow the boards of directors in cooperative associations and mandatory homeowners associations to exercise certain powers and take certain actions in response to damage caused by an event for which a "state of emergency"is declared under Florida law in the area where the community is located, unless specifically prohibited by the association's governing documents.

These powers and actions include the following:

  • Conducting, canceling, or rescheduling board or membership meetings after notice of the meetings and board decisions is provided in "as practicable a manner as possible," which may be by numerous methods, including "any other means the board deems appropriate under the circumstances."
  • Designating assistant officers who are not directors
  • Relocating the association's principal office or designating an alternative principal office
  • Entering into agreements with counties or municipalities to assist with debris removal
  • Implementing a disaster plan which may include turning on or shutting off electricity, water, sewer, or security systems and air conditioners for association buildings

There are other important emergency powers that I'll discuss in my next entry.

I want to close with a few additional points:

  • These new sections extend to boards of directors in cooperatives and mandatory homeowners associations similar powers that were granted to condominium association boards several years ago.
  • The powers must be exercised so as to be consistent with Florida Statute 617.0830.
  • Included in the emergency powers for the board of directors of a cooperative association is the power to require the evacuation of the cooperative property in the event of a mandatory evacuation order in the area where the community is located. If a unit owner or other occupant of a cooperative fails to evacuate the cooperative property after the board has required that evacuation, the association is immune from liability for injury to persons or property arising from such failure. In other words, a unit owner or occupant remains in the home at his or her own risk--not the cooperative association's.  

These two new statutes become effective July 1, 2014 and I'll discuss some additional powers and limitations in my next blog entry.

Can I use our community clubhouse as a hurricane shelter?

Another hurricane season has arrived in Florida and with every approaching tropical storm system I expect to receive at least one call from an ROC manager or board member asking whether the residents can use the community clubhouse as a storm shelter.  My answer is consistent although not always popular:   Unless the community clubhouse has been certified as a "hurricane evacuation shelter" (which means it meets the safety standards established by the American Red Cross), managers and board members should do everything in their power to discourage the use of the clubhouse or any other community building as a storm shelter.

When a condominium, neighborhood, subdivision, or manufactured housing community is placed under a mandatory evacuation order by Florida's Governor or county or local authorities, "mandatory" doesn't mean "I'll leave if and when it's convenient" or "I'm not leaving without my dog/cat/bird"--it means that the refusal of that resident to leave the community in spite of being ordered to do so is a crime--a second degree misdemeanor under Florida law.  I'm certainly not going to advise any client community to help a resident commit a crime and technically that's what managers or board members are doing when they give residents a reason to remain in the community once that order is issued by allowing the clubhouse to be used as a gathering place during a storm.

Here's a partial list of what can go wrong when residents are allowed to use a clubhouse that has not been certified as a hurricane evacuation shelter:

  1. The hurricane roars through, the clubhouse doesn't withstand the force of the winds and/or the storm surge, and residents that were using the clubhouse for shelter are injured or killed
  2. The clubhouse manages to withstand the storm but one of the residents in the clubhouse suffers a stroke or heart attack and dies because the clubhouse had neither the trained personnel nor equipment present to treat that resident and the county's paramedics were busy dealing with numerous other emergencies or were unable to safely enter the community.
  3. The hurricane roars through, the clubhouse survives, and everyone is fine until a resident walks outside, and steps on a downed power line in the community and suffers severe injury or death.

The community association's liability in each of these situations may be substantial and it's entirely possible that the association's insurance company will--with good reason--say that its coverage does not protect the association from claims filed because of an injury or death that occurred because the association allowed the clubhouse to be used for a unauthorized and unlawful purpose.

I've even suggested that associations padlock the clubhouse when a mandatory evacuation order issues or at the very least post signs in bold letters at every entrance way to the clubhouse and any other community buildings to warn every resident that the building is not a hurricane shelter and that any resident that uses the building for that purpose does so at his or her own risk.

There's no reason in this day and age for anyone living in Florida  to be unprepared for an approaching tropical storm system.  Media outlets such as The Weather Channel have almost constant updates when tropical weather threatens our area and the National Hurricane Center provides timely and accurate information that allows all residents to follow and prepare for hurricanes and tropical storms.    Almost every local newspaper and television station publishes an annual hurricane special insert that contains suggested preparedness lists, tracking maps, and locations of certified hurricane evacuation shelters.  Florida's laws also provide shelters for residents with pets, and seek to identify residents with "special needs" who may require assistance in evacuating to the appropriate shelter.  In short, no resident in a community without a certified hurricane evacuation shelter remain in that community when a mandatory order issues to evacuate that community and no community association should encourage its residents to use the community clubhouse or other community owned building to "ride out the storm."